Dale Peterson's aim in his new book The Moral Lives of Animals is to downplay what is unique about human morality. He argues that animals' moral systems are not merely "analogous to our own" — that is, superficially similar due to coincidental factors — but "homologous to our own" — that is, similar due to a "common origin."
He asks us to view morality as a "moral organ" equivalent to the elephant's nose: enormous, powerful, multifaceted. Our "moral organ" may have features that differ from that of other animals, Peterson tells us, but ultimately human morality is, like animal morality, an organ residing in the limbic system of the brain.
Peterson proposes a functional definition of morality: "The function of morality, or the moral organ, is to negotiate the inherent serious conflict between self and others," he claims. But humans and animals negotiate "conflict" by fundamentally different means. Peterson is presenting us with examples not of animal morality, but of Darwinian evolution selecting for behaviours that minimise conflict and strengthen social ties among group-dwelling animals.
Take his examples of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" in the animal kingdom. Chimpanzees, for instance, spend an inordinate amount of time grooming each other. As Jeremy Taylor, author of Not a Chimp told me: ‘'Strong alliances between individuals in a group will almost certainly lead to a better prognosis for each individual who has successfully cultivated them. There is plenty of evidence, for instance, which shows that an individual that has a strong reciprocal grooming relationship with another will be more inclined to intervene on her behalf in an encounter."
Human beings, however, negotiate conflict through socially created values and codes of conduct. If one reduces everything to its simplest form, then one can find parallels between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. But this kind of philistinism does not deepen our understanding of human beings and human society or indeed of animal behaviour.
For instance, Peterson's approach strips a concept like empathy of any deeper meaning. "I would prefer to consider empathy as appearing in two different but related forms, contagious and cognitive," he writes. Contagious empathy is "the process in which a single bird, startled by some sudden movement, takes off in alarm and is instantly joined by the entire flock." Cognitive empathy "is contagious empathy pressed through a cognitive filter: a brain or mind." In other words, these two types of empathy are just different forms of the same thing.
But there is a world of difference between an instinctual connection between organisms — including some of our instinctual responses, such as yawning when others yawn — and human empathy involving a Theory of Mind, that is, the ability to recognise that one's own perspectives and beliefs can be different from someone else's. Once children are able to think about thoughts in this way, their thinking is lifted to a different level.
Human beings, unlike other animals, are able to reflect on and make judgments about our own and others' actions, and as a result, we are able to make considered moral choices.
We are not born with this ability. As the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget showed, children progress from a very limited understanding of morality to a more sophisticated understanding — involving, for instance, the consideration of the motives and intentions behind particular acts.
So, for pre-school children, a child who accidentally breaks several cups, when doing what he'd been asked to do by an adult, is "naughtier" than one who breaks one cup while trying to steal some sweets. Young children judge actions by their outcomes or consequences rather than by their intentions. Claiming that our morality is merely based on "gut instincts" ignores the transformations children go through in their moral understanding from infancy to adolescence.
No doubt Peterson would accuse me of what he terms "false anthropo-exemptionalism" — that is, "an exaggerated insistence on discontinuity" between human beings and other species. His biological determinism prevents him from recognising that something new — something quite exceptional — emerged in the course of the evolution of humans.
Human beings have something that no other animal has: an ability to participate in a collective cognition. Because we, as individuals, are able to draw on the collective knowledge of humanity, in a way no animal can, our individual abilities go way beyond what evolution has endowed us with. Our species is no longer constrained by our biology.
Many scientists reject any notion that human beings have abilities that are profoundly different from other animals. To do so, they fear, will give ammunition to creationists and spiritualists. But we do not need spiritual or "magical" explanations to grasp that the difference between human beings and other animals is fundamental rather than one of degrees. There are some fascinating theories put forward in the last decade that go quite far in explaining the emergence, through evolution, of uniquely powerful human abilities. We don't know how or when, but there must have been some gene mutation or set of mutations tens of thousands of years ago that endowed us with the unique ability to participate in a collective cognition.
A small difference in our innate abilities led to a unique connection between human minds — allowing us to learn through imitation and collaboration — leading to cumulative cultural evolution and the transformation of the human mind.
As I argue in Just Another Ape?: "It is this unique ability to copy complex actions and strategies (even those that the individual doing the copying would never have been able to come up with on their own), along with unique forms of cooperation and an ability to teach, that creates the uniquely powerful 'ratchet effect' in human culture, whereby gains are consolidated and built on rather than having to be rediscovered."
There are very many unanswered questions regarding how and why our human genetic makeup evolved. But even if we did have all the answers, we would not, as a result of these insights, be able to explain why we behave the way we do today, or the ethical codes by which we currently live. The evolution of the human genetic makeup is merely the precondition for the emergence of distinctly human cultural abilities. We need to look to cultural evolution, rather than genetic evolution, to explain the vast gulf that exists between the capabilities and achievements of humans and those of other animals.
Human beings are not perfect and never will be, but we are special and unique among the animal kingdom. We are capable of making judgments about our own and other people's behaviour, and have the capacity consciously to change the way we behave and society as whole.